06/21/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Koman Coulibaly's Blown Call Says About Us

Whether or not Jim Joyce will be sending Koman Coulibaly a Christmas card this year, one thing is painfully clear after the U.S.-Slovenia World Cup match: Misery does indeed love company.

Moments after Coulibaly, a Malian soccer referee, blew the most important call of the game -- overturning a U.S. go-ahead goal on the grounds of a foul that nobody else seemed to see -- bloodthirsty fans on Twitter were linking the doomed soccer ref to another sports villain of recent weeks: Jim Joyce.

Joyce, of course, robbed Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game on June 2 by missing a close call at first base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. In sports circles, both Joyce's mistake and Coulibaly's are inexcusable, and have led to calls for action -- from resignation to professional censure.

On Twitter, some of the connections drawn between the two officials were laugh-out-loud funny.

Matthew Stober of Henderson, NV wrote: "Jim Joyce should send the ref from that game a Christmas card this year."

Will Leitch of Brooklyn added: "I think Koman Coulibaly should be happy his awful call went against the U.S., rather than, say, Colombia."

And David Rudd of Muskegon, MI, jested: "this just in: jim joyce called koman coulibaly to offer some advice about owning mistakes. the Malian ref red-carded him, without saying why."

In fact, so many people were reminded of Joyce's blown call, pointed out one person by the username of @rui_xu, that "Koman Coulibaly ... made Jim Joyce a trending topic again" -- more than two weeks after the Big League umpire topped the topics list.


There are several object lessons to be learned from this trending topics duet by Joyce and Coulibaly.

The first is that the same thing that gives sport its allure -- the human element, the possibility of a home run or a strikeout with each at-bat -- is what sometimes makes it painful to watch. The difference is authority: When a player errs, his mistake is deemed human, part of the game -- a shame for sure, but that's between him and his team. However, when an official errs -- because his error is imposed on all parties, for better or worse -- death threats may ensue. Which brings up another point: Death threats? Really, America?

By noon on Friday, at least three Facebook fan pages had appeared with less-than-civil purpose statements in reference to the World Cup match. One invited Facebook users to "express your disgust for Koman Coulibaly." Another was simply entitled, "America HATES Koman Coulibaly," which, I must say, doesn't quite reflect my own feelings. I shook my fist at his call, but I don't hate him. Perhaps we are either being dramatic or forgetting that this is, in fact, only soccer.

Another lesson from the way Coulibaly brought Joyce back into the spotlight is that human beings reason by comparisons and connections.

Think of the BP oil spill under way in the Gulf: What was the first thing you heard about it? The first sound bite that crossed my ears was that it might meet or even exceed the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez back in 1989. Google "Exxon Valdez and BP" today and you'll get something like 1.6 million hits.

Other comparisons are less obvious, but perhaps more important. For example, when a relatively small earthquake shook San Diego last Sunday, I thought of Haiti. This morning, as I watched Slovenia dominate the first half against the U.S. team, I considered their rather recent independence from the former Yugoslavia. Even the venue of this year's World Cup conjures thoughts of a brutal transition out of apartheid for Johannesburg and the rest of South Africa.
There's no doubt that we in the U.S. need to take care of business and fix our messes -- and, yes, win our soccer games.

But maybe, every now and then, when we feel ourselves getting carried away, we should let the human tendency to compare remind us of how good we have it.